Nearly every state requires you to get a license in order to work as a tattoo artist or to do tattoos on the bodies of other people. Each state has its own set of rules, but in general, the process involves a period of training, followed by filling out an application, taking a series of tests and paying an annual fee.
Gather the Information
First visit the website or contact the state health authority in the state in which you want to work. Get a list of the approved training programs near you and the number of hours of training you're required to do. Some states also allow you to do a "course" under the direction of a tattoo artist who is registered as a tattoo educator. Those courses teach you the basics of doing tattoos, but most tattoo artists come to the trainings already skilled in drawing, painting or other artistry that requires hand-eye coordination and creativity. Thus, before a tattoo educator agrees to train you, she may want to see a portfolio of your other artistic works, notes an article on the Education Portal website.
Training programs vary, but in some states, you must start with a certain number of hours of theoretical training. In Oregon, for example, you're required to have 210 hours of theory training, which typically includes studying how to sanitize your work space to avoid contamination, as well as coursework in first aid and artistic concepts. In Washington, on the other hand, the only formal training is a course in managing blood-borne pathogens. Some states' required coursework costs less than $100, while more extensive or one-on-one training can cost several thousand dollars. Courses sometimes have an exit exam which you need to pass in order to "graduate" from the course.
Do an Apprenticeship
Some states also require you to participate in a period of practical training before you can apply for a license. During this phase, you can start doing tattoos on customers, but only under the supervision of another licensed tattoo artist. Throughout this process, keep records -- including photos -- of the number of tattoos you've done. If your state requires you to do a certain number of tattoos as an apprentice before you can apply for a license, those photos will serve as the proof you'll need as part of your application packet.
As you get close to completing your training, take a look at any study guides or test information your state's health authority provides, and find out about the fees associated with testing. To take the test, you're typically required to be at least 18 years old and to provide one or more forms of identification. Tests typically cover health information such as skin diseases and preventing contamination. They may also have a practical element in which you're required to demonstrate your skills in a live situation. If you pass the test, you get your license for a year or more, and will need to renew it by paying more fees within the required time frame.